CEPACS charts a new beginning for Church communications in Africa

CEPACS, the Pan African Committee for Social Communications, a body created by African Bishops to spearhead the Church’s communication apostolate in Africa, has been given a new lease of life as it wound up the conference phase of its 50th anniversary celebrations held in Lagos, Nigeria. The Lagos meeting was from 18 to 21 November 2023.

Paul Samasumo – Vatican City.

Closing an intense two days of presentations, discussions, suggestions and recommendations from the various African Bishops and Africa’s’ communication professionals, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, the Archbishop of Kinshasa and President of SECAM, declared that it was impossible to imagine evangelisation in Africa without at the same time thinking of communication.

An African Church that communicates

Cardinal Ambongo said that Church communion is the reason for the Church’s very existence. In his closing remarks, the Cardinal echoed the “what next?” question many at the Lagos meeting were asking.

Earlier in the day, the delegates began by returning to the start of CEPACS in 1973. They expressed regret that, over time, enthusiasm for CEPACS had waned and been overtaken by other pastoral priorities. Nevertheless, at the First Synod of Catholic Bishops on Africa (African Synod) in 1994, Social Communication was one of the 5 major themes discussed, the result of which birthed many of Africa’s diocesan radio stations. CEPACS may have had its ups and downs but Church communications on the continent has never stood still. The delegates further acknowledged that weak operational structures for CEPACS affected its fortunes over the years.

Dr Ruffini being interviewed at CEPACS meeting

Dr Ruffini being interviewed at CEPACS meeting

What is CEPACS?

So much has been said this week about this body of African Bishops. What really is CEPACS?

As explained by its current President, Bishop Emmanuel Badejo, CEPACS is the French acronym for Comité Episcopal Panafricain Pour les Communications Sociales or, in English – Pan-African Episcopal Committee for Social Communications. It was established by the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) to help the Bishops of Africa actualise the vision of the Pastoral Instruction Communio et Progressio. This Second Vatican post-conciliar document called attention to communication as a gift of God, an authentic tool for evangelisation, and the necessity of managing it. CEPACS is an outcome of the African Bishops’ meeting of Ibadan, Nigeria, from 28 November to 2 December 1973. The meeting was inspired by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (now known as the Dicastery for Communication) and produced far-reaching conclusions and recommendations.

Evangelise the media Areopagus

Ghana’s Archbishop of Cape Coast, Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle, served CEPACS for many years. In his presentation, the Archbishop said Africa has much to offer. 

Our role, “dear media women and men, brothers and sisters of the Church, Family of God in Africa … should be to encourage our hearers, especially the youth of Africa, empower them, evangelise the media Areopagus, employ the strengths and creative energies of our African Youth for the world is waiting for Africa to contribute her share consciously for the good of humanity. We have a lot to offer. This is the time to do so. Carpe diem,” Archbishop Palmer-Buckle said.

Archbishop Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle, Cape Coast, Ghana, at CEPACS meeting

Dioceses need a presence on social media

The Archbishop of Bamenda and President of the National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon, Andrew Nkea, had a challenge for his fellow Bishops.

“A good number of the dioceses in sub-Saharan Africa still have to arise from the lethargy which is not alert to what is happening in the media world … There are many priests and Bishops who are not on Facebook, Twitter (X), WhatsApp and other new media platforms. Understandably, many Bishops and parish priests are busy people. However, we can allow others to handle our diocesan social media accounts. We don’t necessarily have to do everything ourselves,” said the Cameroonian prelate.

Archbishop Nkea also spoke about the need for priests and religious who have digital and communication skills. “Today, we need priests and religious who are well-trained media specialists and who are given full-time ministry in this respect,” he emphasised.

CEPACS, a Babel mediascape and the African Church

A persistent call from the Lagos CEPACs conference was for the Church in Africa to engage more with the digital culture that has come to stay and cannot be ignored.

Tanzania’s Bishop of Kondoa Diocese, Bishop Bernardin Mfumbusa, led the CEPACS Bishops and communication professionals in a reflection of today’s changed mediascape in Africa. It is a far cry from 1973 when CEPACS was formed. The Church in Africa, Bishop Mfumbusa said, would do well to come to terms with the fact that linear media models that allowed for more centralised and regulated government control were over. Also gone is a Church that had more control over content through instruments such as Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur and by having its own printing presses producing family-worthy Christian magazines. Today, the Church in Africa and elsewhere has to contend with a Babel mediascape with no gatekeepers. In the latter context, the young, sometimes untrained Influencers and content creators reign supreme. It is in this media environment of fake news, misinformation and doxxing that a revitalised CEPACS will need to find its place. It cannot be business as usual for CEPACS.

CEPACS, celebrates 50 years

CEPACS, celebrates 50 years

Bishop Mfumbusa said CEPACS needs to hit the ground running, especially in designing training packages for young African Catholics with regard media literacy. Without this, young people think everything that goes viral or is trending on social media is true. The Church must also pay attention to developing its own laity, priests and sisters who are conversant with programming and have coding skills. Bishop Mfumbusa said increased cooperation and guidance with young Catholic Influencers could also be explored.

Reacting to some of the presentations, delegates urged Bishops to reach out more to the laity already in the digital world and are succeeding. Some of Africa’s brightest young minds, they said, are plying their trade in Western countries. How can this reservoir of talent help Church communications in Africa? That is one strategy that could be pursued. Others said they would want to see CEPACS transform into a network of Catholic media professionals in various African Countries anchored at episcopal conferences.

Towards a new model of communication

As a way of renewal, restarting and revitalising CEPACS, the Bishops and Africa’s Catholic communication professionals meeting in Lagos seemed to be in agreement about the need for more introspection and that SECAM, CEPACS and its key stakeholders of communicators, priests, religious, lay associations in the coming year 2024 and beyond need to engage and rethink the mandate of CEPACS -its structure of operation, its programmes, training focus and activities. More importantly, what would a realistic and sustainable funding model for CEPACS look like? The push for a revitalised CEPCAS must be seen as a Synodal journey.

In the end, CEPACS delegates said they were leaving Lagos confident that they know what needs to be done to question, “what next” for Church communications in Africa – at least the direction to take has been mapped. Having deliberated and decided to reinforce what is working well and rebuild what worked well and has been lost, the CEPACS delegates are said they are immensely encouraged by the support of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication. The die is cast for new beginnings.

Cardinal Ambongo with other Bishops